Memorial Day can be a PTSD trigger for veterans

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As a Cold War veteran, Charles Ritli knows firsthand how the mental toll of being in the military can last long after leaving the battlefield.

“We’re taught to be aggressive if we need to be,” said Ritli.  “That’s what we’re here to do, to protect our country and our citizens because that’s our job, and once a soldier, always a soldier. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

He’s also a licensed clinical psychologist with Linden Oaks Behavioral Health and helps other veterans with mental illness.

“When we do feel down or are suicidal, we tend not to ask for help because we’re taught to be strong,” he said.  “About 20 veterans a day that take their life by suicide and that’s problematic.”

PTSD a common concern for veterans

Among the most common mental health concerns for veterans is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder is when you’ve had a trauma and now your body is hypersecreting adrenaline, waking you up from your sleep from a nightmare about it or if you get reminded by a trigger, you start experiencing high anxiety symptoms,” said Dr. Avid Nazeer, Founder and Chief Medical Officer at Naperville Advanced Psychiatric Solutions.

Though PTSD can happen to anyone after any type of trauma, Dr. Nazeer sees the condition more commonly among veterans, because of the nature of their service.

“Many times it’s hard readjusting from if there was active duty and they were deployed, and then trying to reintegrate into society,” said Dr. Nazeer.  “It’s really difficult.”

“People who are experiencing PTSD can go through a period of anger, denial, and grieving and not even notice these things, ” said Michelle Kaplan, Company Commander, Nurse, and Nurse Practitioner for the U.S. Army, who helps many colleagues in the Army and civilians suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder.  “Their families may notice they’re acting different.  For the person going through PTSD it’s very scary and very real.”

Memorial Day can be a possible trigger

And although well-intended, even holidays when we honor veterans like Memorial Day can be a trigger.

“It might trigger old memories and old traumas from their time in the military,” said Dr. Nazeer.  “Just the attention on itself might trigger anxiety.”

Oftentimes those suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate, many times “to escape the reality, to escape their own demons,” said Ritli.

“Alcohol itself is a depressant and it might kind of cover it up a little bit and calm down but the more you use alcohol, the more depressant of an effect it has,” said Dr. Nazeer.  “It actually triggers more symptoms so it’s like a vicious loop that you end up in.”

Resources to help deal with PTSD

PTSD can ultimately lead to depression and even suicide, but it can be treated.  There are a number of national and local resources for veterans struggling with PTSD, including:

  • The National Crisis Hotline
  • The Vet Center
  • Veterans of Foreign Wars
  • American Legion

Above all else, Kaplan says helping struggling veterans starts at home, with being open about – and accepting of – one’s mental health struggles.

“It’s okay not to be okay and I think that mentality starts within you,” said Kaplan.  “We all struggle sometimes.  You struggle. I struggle.  We all go through our challenges in life.”

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